History and Culture of Japanese Pickles or Tsukemono
Japanese cuisine is best exemplified by the healthiness of every dish, where there is a mixture of rice, meat, and vegetables. Most Japanese dishes have very little calorie content but are jam packed with an explosion of flavors.
Food in Japan does not just revolve around sushi and sashimi as there is a multitude of interesting elements in every meal. In fact, what makes every Japanese meal special would be the side dishes that complement with almost every regional and traditional food in the country.
What is collectively known as tsukemono, pickles is one of the core elements in a Japanese meal. Side dishes, particularly the tsukemono, has played an important role in the historical culture of Japan as traditional meals have avoided or shunned meat. In place of meat, locals get their vitamins and much-needed protein from vegetables and fish served in every meal. This is why side dishes, such as pickled vegetables, are very important for every serving. This is also the reason why every meal in Japan involves a small serving of pickles.
This habit has been carried over through the centuries that even in modern times most meals still involve vegetables and fish, to every vegetarian’s delight. Japanese food, especially the tsukemono is great for vegetarian tourists who wish to visit the country.
Although the tsukemono is not that noticeable in every meal, it is believed by many culinary experts as an important element in providing balance in every serving. Just like how salads are for a simple five-course meal, tsukemono supplements a raw yet delicious vegetable element to food. It adds up color and flavor to the food - being important not only in the aesthetics of a meal but also its taste.
The reason why many Japanese people love tsukemono with their meal is the fact that it provides a refreshing cleanse in the mouth. It provides an opportunity for people to enjoy the variety of tastes in their food.
The Different Types of Japanese Pickles:
Tsukemono and Pickled Japanese Vegetables
Some culinary experts say that the Japanese pickle almost every type of vegetable and serve them with almost all well-known dishes and meals. In Japanese history, tsukemono was a way for the locals to preserve food and make them last for days or months, prior the age of the refrigerator. This is their way to ensure that food can last indefinitely. Traditional methods include salting and vinegar brining, while more traditional methods include more complicated methods such as fermentation.
Pickled vegetables and fruits are well-known to be part of the Japanese culinary sensations for centuries. They are served to both royalty and noblemen. Through time, they have been introduced to the masses and is now considered as an important element in every Japanese dinner table. It is well-loved by both children and adults alike.
Tsukemono is normally very pungent because of the fermentation process involved in making them. This is the reason why it is not easily loved by foreign tourists. However, these are sure to make anyone happy as they add interesting flavors to Japanese food. They make the serving unique and special in many ways.
Through time, it has become a staple in every meal and no serving will be complete without a tsukemono. Among the most popular are as follows:
Daikon Pickle – Takuan
This particular type of pickle is made from radishes and are best known to have a delicious golden color. They are made to be fermented for months on end which results in a delicious flavor of fermented daikon. The crispiness of the daikon added to the sweet-sour taste that resulted from the fermentation is a favorite in Japanese homes and restaurants.
A number of experts have explained that even though Daikons are available throughout the year, they are normally more delicious when picked during the fall or winter season. This kind of pickle is best served with soups and dishes with strong umami flavors as it provides a good balance to every meal.
Some takuan are not yellow when served, this is because of the fact that a special ingredient was not included in the process of making them. Tumeric, or sometimes, yellow food coloring is a common ingredient that gives the takuan its delicious, and mouth-watering golden color.
Fukujinzuke or Hukujinzuke
This particular type of pickle is best used as a relish for Japanese curry as it provides a refreshing taste to the spiciness of the dish. Unlike other kinds of pickle which are made from a single kind of vegetable, the Fukujinzuke can use a variety of vegetables such as lotus root, cucumber, and eggplant which are representations of the Seven Lucky Gods. Some recipes include mushrooms and sesame seeds to add an even tastier flavor for the pickle.
These vegetables are chopped finely and flavored with soy sauce fermented while keeping the texture crunchy and enjoyable for the mouth. After some time of fermentation, the hukujinzuke will have a delicious soy sauce brown color which is delicious not only with curry but also any fried fish.
Japanese Cucumber Tsukemono
Unlike other tsukemono recipes, the famous cucumber tsukemono uses salting as a means of preservation. A simple cucumber is covered in salt then pressed to remove its water content. The salt in the process releases moisture in the vegetable and captures only the flavor of the cucumber. After the salting of the plant, the cucumber will then be mixed in with chopped chili and sesame seeds.
What is interesting about this cucumber tsukemono is that no amount of vinegar will be used in the entire process. This kind of pickle is different from a normal, westernized idea of a sour pickle. Instead, it will give out a salty flavor infused with the refreshing taste of cucumber.
Japanese Pickled Cabbage Tsukemono
Cabbage Tsukemono is more like a salad than it is a pickle because, just like how cucumbers are pickled, there is no vinegar used in its entire recipe. It is made mildly sour by the interaction of salt and moisture of the cabbage. As for the kind of cabbage used, any kind is possible with the Napa cabbage as the most common.
Because it is quite basic, affordable and easy to make, this kind of pickle is commonly found served in homes and restaurants. It has that flavorful taste and is made even more delicious by its crunchiness. This kind of pickle is also the kind which is most available in stores, even online. Since there will be minor problems when it comes to its shelf life, a number of online stores sell these if there are no tsukemono available in local Asian stores. According to locals, the Hiroshima Brand is the favorite.
What is interesting about the Japanese cuisine is that pickling does not always involve vegetables. There are also some kinds of dishes that serve up pickled fruits. One very common kind is the Japanese pickled plums or Umeboshi.
Japanese plums are salted heavily to balance out its natural sourness. Normal pickled plums which are served in restaurants have a red color, despite plums being green when picked. This is because of the fact that red shiso leaves are a special ingredient in its pickling process. These pickled plums are a favorite with fried fish and meat and are normally served on top of a bed of rice in restaurant bento.
Learning to make Japanese Tsukemono
How to use Tsukemono Japanese Pickle Press
Traditionally, Tsukemono is made from putting vegetables in salt so that the vegetable with be dehydrated. This dehydration, much like in making kimchi, brings out the richness in the flavor of the particular fruit or vegetable. However, excess moisture is sure to still be present after much salting. In earlier times, tsukemono will be placed in tubs and are covered with lids that are weighed with very large and heavy stones. This is to extract excess moisture found in the vegetable.
In the modern times, this process of pickling is made easier by what is known as a pickle press. Now, there will be no more need for large stones and weights. Instead, Japanese kitchens are equipped with plastic pickle presses. This device is complete with a clamp on top of the container and a lid which can be screwed down to push tightly on the vegetables to remove and squeeze out excess water.
How to pickle using the Asazuke Method
Known as one of the most common ways of making Japanese pickles, the Asazuke method is the go-to style of many restaurants and households in making tsukemono. Unlike other pickling methods that take about weeks or months to ferment, the Asazuke method is the quickest way to make pickles, having the easiest recipe and the shortest preparation time.
This method involves the rubbing of salt onto sliced or chopped vegetables which are then placed in a zip-locked bag or resealable bag. Added with chopped chili, the asazuke method becomes an even tastier favorite. Some experts do not use salt in the process and instead uses vinegar in the recipe. Fermentation time can last from only 30 minutes to a few hours depending on the target taste and flavor.
How to pickle using the Nukazuke Method
Salting or brining is not the only method of making Tsukemono in Japan, there are other very interesting methods of fermentation that bring about a variety of flavors and taste to the pickle. The Nukasuke method uses rice bran instead of salt or vinegar in the fermentation process. What is special about the Nukazuke or nukadoko is that it has a more sour and yeasty flavor than the normal Tsukemono made from salt.
Vegetables are tucked into a bed of rice bran with a mixture of boiled salt water. The fermentation process is started with the microbes contained from an older batch of rice bran mixed in with a newer batch. This process is much more difficult than the Asazuke brand as it requires continuous hand mixing to keep the fermentation steady.
Some information about Tsukemono Recipes
Tsukemono recipes are not that difficult to find. Furthermore, they are not difficult to make at home, especially pickles that use the simple and quick asazuke method. Here are two of the most common tsukemono recipes available:
Japanese Cucumber Tsukemono Recipe
- 2 or 3 pcs Cucumber
- 2 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp. sugar
- 1/4 cup vinegar
- Chopped Chili
- Sesame seeds
- Cut the cucumber into very thin slices. This process helps in the easy fermentation and dehydration of the cucumber, giving out a crunchy but flavorful taste.
- Once sliced and cleaned, place in a small bowl and add salt. Slightly massage the mixture but make sure the cucumbers don’t crumble. Let this mixture sit for a few minutes.
- Wash cucumber to rinse off the salt and drain mixture. Add the sugar, sesame seeds, and vinegar into the bowl. Add a pinch of salt and the chili flakes or chopped chili to taste.
- Placed in a sealed container and refrigerate overnight.
Japanese Eggplant Tsukemono Recipe
- 1 tsp of Kosher Salt, or Sea salt
- 1/4 tsp of sugar
- Chopped Chili
- Soy Sauce
- The eggplant must be washed and cut into diagonal bite-sized pieces and soaked in water. This helps in reducing the bitterness and rawness of the eggplant.
- Once the water turns slightly brown, drain the eggplant.
- Add the salt and sugar and lightly massage the eggplant. After massaging, let the eggplant mixture sit for about 10 minutes. This process will start to dehydrate the eggplant.
- After letting the eggplant sit for a few minutes, gently drain out excess water by squeezing. Make sure that the squeezing process will not break apart the eggplant. If it does, let it sit for five to 10 minutes more.
- For extra flavor sprinkle with chopped chili and soy sauce to taste.